It took a few months after the initial outbreak in Guangdong before China was able to share more information about the disease to the WHO. In March 2003, the WHO finally issued a global alert notifying the medical community regarding a severe form of pneumonia with unknown origins. And it issued several travel advisories in April 2003.
This highlights the importance of transparency during times of epidemics. Chinese officials reported the first known case of COVID-19 on December 31, 2019, amidst growing concern of underreported cases prior to the date.
It was July 2003 when the WHO declared the end of the SARS epidemic. To date, there are still no known vaccines for the virus. Fortunately, healthcare workers have contained the virus mostly in laboratory environments, with a limited number of cases.
What can we apply today based on the 2003 SARS epidemic?
The 2003 SARS epidemic resulted in more than 8,000 confirmed cases across 29 territories, with China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan reporting the highest number of infections. Outside of Asia, Canada reported the most cases of infections due to a traveller who contracted the disease at the Metropole Hotel.
COVID-19 has already surpassed these figures. Globally, as of 17 September 2020, there have been 29,737,453 confirmed cases of COVID-19. This includes 937,391 deaths, according to the WHO.
This presents a more pressing need to properly handle and contain the epidemic. And this needs to be done on both the national government and individual level.
Due to the similarity of the two viruses, we can apply learnings from what caused the SARS epidemic to today’s COVID-19 epidemic.
SARS and COVID-19: What we’ve learned
- SARS presented mostly the same symptoms as COVID-19. Its mode of transmission is similar. Coughing or sneezing transmits the SARS virus. From this, we can continue to observe proper social distancing, and avoiding large crowds. Practicing good hygiene is also crucial.
- Media covered the early months of the 2003 SARS epidemic extensively. But when they were unable to share more info about its origins, and because of the fact that there was still no cure at the time, there was only panic and anxiety among the public. With the current COVID-19 situation, it’s important for governments and individuals to be transparent, and to share only accurate information about the outbreak.
- Majority of the transmissions from the 2003 SARS epidemic occurred within the healthcare setting. Today, we see a similar trend in the Philippines, with at least 21 doctors losing their lives while caring for COVID-19 patients as of April 2020.
These deaths mean a great loss. Healthcare workers on the frontline are at a significant risk.